The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here.
With Rousseau, however, the same monopolitical vision was turned upside down and theorized as popular in a manner that rendered the monarch irrelevant. It is most likely the saturation of French republican thinking on the eve of the Revolution with this radical recasting of the notion of sovereignty that allowed for the guillotining of the king, something which in previous “political theologies” would have been as unthinkable as attempting to dethrone God. It would have been truly “Luciferian”, and it is not accidental that the revolutionary obsession that Rousseau ignited not merely in 1789 but throughout much of the nineteenth century has its origins in the kind of “occult” beliefs and theories of covert organization that Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, pioneered, as James Billington so magisterially documents.
The mythical overlap between the ancient cult of Lucifer, “the light bringer”, and the doctrine as well as ritualized practice of illuminism as a form of esoteric politics that fired the “revolutionary faith”, as Billington names it, is difficult to ignore. According to Billington, illuminism stood for “the pure reign of natural liberty and equality.” Illuminist secrecy and what came over time to be a synonym for conspiratorial politics as a whole was couched in the belief that the purity of the primordial “social contract” could only be realized through covert initiation, regimentation, and unprecedented forms of activism. “A new ‘inner politics’ would provide both the nucleus and the model for a transformed world”. (96)
The Rousseauean construct of the general will thus became the paradigmatic form of sovereignty for the modern scene. Rousseau writes in The Social Contract:
The first and most important deduction from the principles we have so far laid down is that the general will alone can direct the State according to the object for which it was instituted, i.e., the common good: for if the clashing of particular interests made the establishment of societies necessary, the agreement of these very interests made it possible. The common element in these different interests is what forms the social tie; and, were there no point of agreement between them all, no society could exist. It is solely on the basis of this common interest that every society should be governed. I hold then that Sovereignty, being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the Sovereign, who is no less than a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself: the power indeed may be transmitted, but not the will. (15)
The Rousseauean sovereign as “collective being” breaks down to the curious and ubiquitous trope that stalks so much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, particularly the German idealists – i.e., “the will”. Critics of Rousseau such as Jacob Talmon have argued that the notion of a sovereign general will has served as “the driving force of totalitarian democracy”, primarily because it functions as a pure abstraction.(6) The “collective being” is no flesh-and-blood person, and the only concrete figuration it can assume is that of the state.
The state, however, has its own absolute autonomy and a mind of its own. There can be no “concrete universal” in the Hegelian sense, only a bare, abstract universality empowered to crush the specific wills of its citizens, as happened in the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution from 1793-4. It is what Hegel himself termed an “empty semblance of objectivity” that purports to signify the unconditional agency implied in collective volition. According to Hegel, in the transform of universal consciousness corresponding to the Terror, “the universal will takes an inward turn and is a singular will.”
This singular will is devoid of content, claiming only a categorical moral imperative that no longer differentiates between its multiple embodied expressions among the various political players. At the same time, “this singular consciousness is just as immediately conscious of itself as the universal will; it is conscious that its object is a law given by itself and is a work carried out by itself, and passing over into activity and into creating objectivity, it is thus not making anything which is singular; it is only making laws and state-actions.” (342).
Here the Kantian paradox of sovereignty versus autonomy comes irrepressibly to the fore. Kant’s insistence that the only truly “moral” will can be a “pure will,” one without any “empirical motives”, or affiliations with and inflections from the “world of sense”, secures its autonomy as a type of “self-causality” that is no longer determined by the laws of material causation. (58) Yet this newly purified or “holy” will, as Kant calls it elsewhere in one of his all-too-familiar riffs on his own tacit German pietist convictions, is wholly determined pari passu by the “categorical” imperative of “pure practical reason.”
The well-known “de-ontological” character of Kant’s ethics derives from this disjunction. A deontological ethics, generally speaking, is concerned with rules for carrying out what are regarded as unconditional obligations, or what is proverbially summed up as “duty for duty’s sake.” The term “categorical” in Kantian usage implies that there can be no “ifs, ands, or buts” in formulating principles of moral obligation, largely because what makes something moral or ethical is that it must be seen as valid in every situation or case where a decision between two alternatives is necessary. Kant calls this the principle of “universalizability”, which he juxtaposes with what he dubs the categorical imperative.
Kant pronounces the general form of the categorical imperative in his Critique of Practical Reason: “So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle in a giving of universal law.” (28). As far as Kant is concerned, it is only if the motive for any deliberate act can be universalized, or configured a “fact” of pure practical reason, that it can be considered moral at all. There can be no exceptions. That is why Kant understands morality as a type of “law”, not merely a set of precepts that can be called upon in conflicting circumstances. Acting in accordance with the moral law truly makes one “free” or “autonomous”, according to Kant’s logic, because the law of pure reason can only be given by a rational being to itself (autonomos=”self-legislating”). The moral precept or “maxim” is not conditioned by any empirical elements or arrangements.
Nonetheless, autonomy is not the same as sovereignty. The historical emergence in Western jurisprudence of the theme of popular sovereignty prior to Rousseau was masterfully scoped out more than a half century ago in the work of Ernst Kantorowicz. Though criticized over the years for taking a speculative approach, despite the fact that his 600-page plus magnum opus is replete with obscure historical examples from countless previously unmined legal archives, Kantorowicz makes a persuasive case that the somewhat murky Medieval notion of the “king’s two bodies” – i.e., the body of the concrete, reigning monarch and the corpus mysticum of kingship itself that somehow authorizes who and what the king is supposed to be – constitutes the implicit conceptual framework within which Rousseau was able to flip over the lex regia, or “king’s law”, into the idea of the maiestas populi.
The concept of maiestas populi, or the “greatness of the people”, had persisted since Roman times and at least on the theoretical plane defined who the emperor was in essence – that is, the “incarnation” of the formal body of the people. (504) It is this difference between the two bodies of the king, Kantorowicz argues, that serves proleptically as the difference between monarchial and popular sovereignty. Yet, in contrast with the elevation of the principle of monarchial sovereignty that we find in Bodin and other contemporaries who assert the baroque legacy of absolute rulership, the later modern reversion to the maiestas populi does not endow any kind of preferences or privileges with concrete membership in the body politic.
The difference between the two bodies, therefore, is also a distinction between what is personal and what is perpetually abstract, or fictive. As Kantorwicz stresses, “it is nevertheless a difference within the same general system of politico-legal thought in which the Law as such, incarnate in the ruler or not, appeared as the true sovereign”. (147) Practically speaking, maiestas populi simply means that “popular sovereignty” guarantees the right of the law-making and law-enforcing apparatus, which we otherwise understand as the power of the “state”, in contradistinction to the fullness of the populace itself, to function as the site of origin for democracy.
This subtle difference has not only emboldened Rousseau’s critics over the centuries, it also explains why so-called “populist” movements and the varieties of self-proclaimed people’s democracies often turn out to be not by and for the people at all, but by and for the elites who manipulate the levers of state administration. Finally, it is also why the notion of the people itself within the contemporary political format becomes what Laclau terms an “empty signifier.”
It is the performance of such terms as the demos or “the people” within the register of any discrete system of political discourse, according to Laclau, that lays bare what we really have in mind when we speak of popular sovereignty. The referents of such terms are vacuous or “empty” because they have become totally malleable or arbitrary. In addition, such linguistic behavior increasingly conforms to what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan referred to as the “sliding” or “floating” signifier.
Floating signifiers arise in complex, discursive circuits where the struggle to articulate a viable abstraction from volatile certain volatile affects, which in turn are generated within the Lacanian schema by the incapacity of the subject to enunciate concisely what he or she desires. Lacan identified the importance of the floating signifier relatively early in his career as crucial to his adaptation within the psychoanalytic setting of Freud’s “talking cure”. The patient, client, analysand is unable to determine or detail exactly what he or she “means” by particular utterances, recognizing them as part of a broader symptomatology of speech which can only acquire clarity when the analyst intervenes to draw them together in a manner where they redound at last as a holistic ensemble of signifiance for the subject per se.
This zone of clarity toward to which the subject agonistically attains in the psychoanalytic process is what Lacan calls the point de capiton (“anchoring point”). Frequently, Lacan notes, the act of “quilting” coincides with the moment of metaphoricity, or at “the precise point at which meaning is produced in nonmeaning.” (423)
In politics, Laclau argues, the signifying operation known as “populism” occurs when a similar symptomatology, or syndrome of dissent and discontent, breaks out within the historically fixed “institutional” matrix of democratic discourse. Such a discourse pretends to allow all segments to speak in some sense for the entirety of voices. The “people”, therefore, presumably refers somehow automatically and reflexively to all those who are represented within the national constitutive body that governs and administers on a quotidian basis.
However, “in the case of populism, this symmetry is broken: there is a part which identifies itself with the whole.” Furthermore, a radical exclusion will take place within the communitarian space…the rejection of a power that is very active within the community requires the identification of all links in the popular chain with an identity principle which crystallizes all differential claims around a common denominator – and the latter requires, of course, a positive symbolic expression. This is the transition from what we have called democratic demands to popular demands. (172)
In effect, according to Laclau, the populus is transformed into what the Romans labelled the plebs – the marginalized, the underprivileged, the discounted. It is the part that now signifies the whole, extruding the very dominant and expressive “ruling class” that formerly claimed to speak on behalf of the totality. In populism the plebs is now “the only legitimate populus.”
Returning to Kant, whom I have argued elsewhere is the exponent of cosmopolitan or “progressive” neoliberalism avant la lettre, we can see that some facsimile of a moral universality is always coded into the quest for an “inclusive” politics that recognizes the real presence of those who were once excluded. It becomes a kind of integral calculus that purports to gather together through its flashy algorithms all the conceivable differentia of the signifying system and somehow resolve them, both synchronously and diachronously, into a formulary for pure “equity”.
The present day, progressive neoliberal mantra of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” hence materializes as the twenty-first formal equivalent in an increasingly transnational, and by implication metapolitical as well as monopolitical, version of the general will. Progressive neoliberalism in its twenty-first century, neo-Kantian guise requires some etheric version of an abstract, de-peopled state apparatus, most likely in the form of an education and communications cartel of social influencers aligned with corporate economic power to work its rhetorical magic.
Kant’s “moral law within me” no longer mirrors the “starry heavens above”, but the glitterati of Hollywood and the leading lights of celebrity culture constantly mouthing “woke” platitudes that service primarily the core cultural and financial interests of the visible elites. It is no longer Kantian autonomy that is attained, but recognition within the regulatory syntax of approved political identities. Sovereignty belongs to the discursive system, not to the flesh-and-blood people.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.